Post Covid/New Work: Rethinking the workplace is not optional – it is inevitable
Sven Bietau (Managing Partner at CSMM – architecture matters) in conversation with Christian Zingg (Chief Product Owner at RIO) about the future of the workplace. (For more detailed information about the authors, see the section at the end of the article)
Before the pandemic hit, we often thought of the workplace simply in terms of its outward appearance. Our current situation is a powerful reminder that a company’s workplace design needs to be aligned with their values. The tensions between different office cultures, ways of working and workplace designs may be more evident in the COVID era, but the debate about how we redefine the workplace is age-old.
Working from home is gaining more and more acceptance thanks to the advances of modern technology. Here at CSMM, we see this as an opportunity that offers people a lot of individual freedom. We finally have the ability to work from remote locations and to have more flexibility when it comes to organising our time. The pandemic has changed how we prioritise concentration versus communication, and a carefully considered workplace design will allow us to strike the right balance between the two. Since deep concentration tasks often take place in the home office, it is important for companies to provide enough office space for communication and interaction with co-workers and clients in order to foster a strong bond with the company. After all, we measure the success of a company by how well it responds to the needs of its employees.
For us at CSMM, innovative workplace design is always an interdisciplinary process. We love helping our clients design and redesign their workplaces, because if there is one thing we have learned in our conceptual work with clients, it’s that an office is never finished. Workplace design is a dynamic process that must be able to adapt to ever-changing requirements. The workplace of the future is no longer a purely physical space. Working remotely means that we do a lot of our tasks virtually, but then how do we promote team cohesion? A sense of belonging, intrinsic motivation as well as the values of the company act as cultural glue. Without it, you can’t build a “workplace” – in real or virtual terms.
In partnership with RIO from the TRATON GROUP (which is working on the mobility and logistics ecosystem of the future through digital services offered on the RIO platform), we designed a workplace that is currently undergoing further development.
We spoke with Christian Zingg, Head of Operational Excellence & Agile Mastery, about the challenges and insights of the new working world. The result was surprising. Initially, we assumed that design issues would define the post-pandemic workplace. But the more we talked, the more it became clear that management techniques, leadership, culture and above all people were far more decisive issues.
For us, Sven Bietau from CSMM and Christian Zingg from RIO, there is no question that changes and challenges in the business environment offer an opportunity to redefine the workplace and turn it into a place where we will feel comfortable into the future. Everything we discussed and learned can be consolidated into six key principles, which we would like to share with you.
We must create physical and virtual spaces for social interaction
We’ve all experienced it: the best part of the party always happens in the kitchen. This completely unsuitable room, with dirty dishes everywhere and people bustling around, is the most popular spot where the party’s best conversations take place. “In our office, we tore down a meeting room to build a huge kitchen. It gets a lot of use,” says Christian Zingg, recalling the pre-pandemic days. The office kitchen turned into the main meeting area, as it does in many companies. A place where people like to spend time. And even though everyone had their own assigned workstation, a lot of them would sit down to work in the kitchen because there was so much interaction. “Our in-house communications policy was for management to introduce key topics driving RIO’s business in the kitchen. The teams would also use the kitchens for presentations they thought would interest all staff,” says Christian Zingg. Like any good party, it seems that the kitchen is also a space for exchange and creativity in the office. During lockdown these meetings suddenly stopped, and it quickly became evident that a video conference was no substitute for the tried-and-true kitchen.
The problem: Social isolation and loneliness. Person-to-person kitchen chats cannot be replicated with a bit of small talk before a video conference.
The solution: RIO launched an initiative called “Connect@RIO”. This voluntary programme centres around a simple idea: every week at a designated time, two RIO employees chosen at random meet virtually or in the office for an hour. The only rule: no office talk! “The program was extremely popular. And even though it is just a simple device, we felt it sent the right signal and promoted connections that go beyond the small talk before or after a video conference.” No doubt the kitchen will once again become the top meeting spot when the pandemic is over.
People with an adaptable mindset are probably a better fit in the long run – both in good times and in bad.
In the beginning, RIO had no plans to completely renovate the office, just make some changes here and there. Originally an entity within the MAN Group, the staff tried at first to live with what was there – your standard office furniture and enclosed, private offices - but it wasn’t working. “Back then, we already had teams that wanted to sit together, because they spent their days coding together,” says Christian Zingg. In terms of the way the staff work and think, the company has always been more suited to an open-plan layout than cellular offices. So, we set about optimising their workplace design. First step: The managers are no longer cordoned off in individual offices with their assistants. Instead, they sit with their teams in an open-plan space. CSMM worked with the RIO staff to design a more open workplace, which is ultimately what made the finished product such a success. We always develop projects like these in collaboration with – using agile principles and on equal footing.
“But success is not only a product of the perfect workplace design,” Christian Zingg believes. “You also have to find the people who bring your office to life and take your business to the next level.” Today, more than ever, it’s all about people management. The main priority has to be treating your staff in a transparent, respectful way and taking a genuine interest in their needs and concerns. As soon as the recruiting process begins, you have to ask yourself one key question: Which employees will be a good fit for the company today and into the future? Christian Zingg: “We are now at the point that really good developers and other talent in the digital space see us as an attractive employer. These are the kind of people who are usually critical of digital initiatives run by large corporations, but we manage to win them over during the application process with our vision and culture, our technology and way of working.”
The problem: The expectations of qualified talent remain high, particularly in the digital space – even though the threat of COVID-related unemployment is on the rise. At the same time, it is more important than ever to find the right people – people who are a good fit for the company.
The solution: Agility is more than just a buzzword. Organisations that live up to the agile ambitions of their office culture tend to find talent who are really passionate. Agility encompasses everything from mindset to technology. Christian Zingg: “A huge motivator for our developers is the fact that our technology and tools are always state-of-the-art. It starts with the little things, like configuring their own desktop computer set-up, and goes all the way to providing a workplace tailored to all of their day-to-day needs. During the pandemic, our teams have been working from home 100% of the time and it has been super successful. This is mainly due to the fact that we put effort into adapting these well-established teams for “remote operation”. Particularly when it comes to onboarding new recruits, but also for our teams’ regular in-person meetings, we believe the office will remain relevant as an interactive space.”
About the authors
Christian Zingg, Head of Operational Excel- lence & Agile Mastery. In his role at RIO, Zingg is responsible for making the company a competitive player on the software development market. This includes actively cultivating the corporate culture, further developing management practices, optimising the development teams and creating an ideal work environment for all staff. RIO is the digital brand of the Munich-based TRATON GROUP. Before the pandemic, around 100 staff worked in the RIO office in Parkstadt Schwabing.
Sven Bietau, Managing Partner at CSMM, an architecture and consulting firm specialising in forward-looking workplace design and office property. The firm’s successful 18-year track record both in Germany and abroad has made CSMM one of the leading companies in the segment. For commercial tenants and users, CSMM offer support for the entire decision-making process involved in tailor-made workplace concepts. This includes advice on property selection, workflow analysis and relocation management as well as workplace strategies and the forward-looking redesign of work environments.
Values provide the foundation for the workplace and define the employer brand.
Building a relationship on trust is the key to success, whether your staff is working in person at the office or remotely from home. A company’s core values are the key success factor in the physical workplace, but it is equally important to live according to these values in the digital workplace as well. Today, many companies still operate according to the principles of the Industrial Age, with management monitoring, dictating and optimising everything down to the last detail.
Managers who monitor their team’s every move haven’t fully grasped how demotivating this is for committed, quality talent. “It takes a huge leap of faith to let go and hope that you get results. Once you’ve mastered that, you are well on your way to a full transformation. It is tough to strike the right balance between taking control and letting go. But it can make or break a company’s reputation as an employer and even discourage motivated talent from signing on,” says Christian Zingg and adds: “I hope people don’t get the impression that we are trying to be some kind of “feel good” employer – that kind of thinking is too one-dimensional. It comes down to this: With the right office environment, we believe people advance extremely quickly and bring a lot of enthusiasm to our corporate success– which will ultimately help us achieve our goals even faster.”
The problem: What is the right amount of oversight to ensure you don’t lose track of your staff’s performance? A cautionary tale: In the US, there are companies that encourage their employees to leave their computer cameras on all day long, so that they keep a closer eye on them
The soulution: Shift trust and accountability to the teams themselves. Why should we focus on the 5% of staff who don’t typically play by the rules? Instead, we should be putting all of our trust and support into the remaining 95% who are doing a great job. These are the type of employees who thrive in a trusting environment, who have what it takes to become a true leader and an in-house entrepreneur with the drive to take the company forward.
Making the workplace a home away from home is the cultural glue that keeps successful companies together
Why even have an office if you can do the majority of your work from home? During the first wave of the pandemic in March 2020, RIO pulled the ripcord and sent all of the teams home to make sure no one was exposed to unnecessary risks. The roughly 2,000-square-metre office in Munich, where as many as 130 employees used to congregate, was suddenly deserted. At first glance, the lockdown didn’t seem to have an impact on work outcomes. “We make sure our technology is state-of-the-art – in theory we could work from anywhere in the world. There was no reason to make a single RIO staffer come into the office,” says Christian Zingg.
It didn’t take long for them to figure out that some things actually worked better remotely than in the office – for instance remote pair programming, when two programmers do highly concentrated work on the same code base. With a second set of eyes, they can avoid and/or detect errors and keep the code quality high. The downside: Social interaction between co-workers and teams takes a back seat, staff lose their sense of belonging and the company risks losing its identity.
Unlike most other companies, RIO have managed to avoid falling into this trap – though they are more the exception than the rule. Software developers by nature are ideally suited to the remote workplace. They already communicate digitally for the most part and they work with state-of-the-art technology and tools.
The problem: Staff basically perform the same whether they work from home or in the office, but they miss the social interaction with their co-workers and typical “water cooler” chats fall by the wayside. The sense of belonging – the cultural “glue” - is gone.
The soulution: During the pandemic for sure, but in the future as well, we need more on and off-line initiatives like “Connect@RIO” that invest in social interaction. The workplace will always be a place for “analogue encounters” – it is unlikely to completely lose its relevance. Employers getting ready for the demands of the post-pandemic workplace would be well advised to design their workplace with enough space for employees to engage in collaborative work and social interaction, providing the ideal “glue” to hold the company together.
Agile operations need an agile workplace – build more flexibility into everything
It is impossible to generalise about whether a company will need more or less space in the future. A lot depends on the specific sector and business needs. That doesn’t mean that companies shouldn’t be able to challenge the status quo. Today more than ever, the statement holds true that the workplace is not a static concept but must instead continuously adapt to changing needs. CSMM’s Sven Bietau says: “The design and the workplace itself are simply service providers for the company and its staff. We worked with RIO to analyse their processes and workflows and used that analysis to develop the best possible workplace design for the client.” Christian Zingg adds: “We never said that certain aspects of the design couldn’t be changed or tweaked. Our teams handle it themselves by adapting their environment to their needs as they evolve, even if this means radical changes. That’s why it looks like it does today.” One example: a few years ago, Christian Zingg decided to install special felt telephone booths that were screwed to the wall. It was meant to be a clever way of minimising the disruption of a telephone call. In the end, it turned out that no one at RIO ever used them – so they took them down again.
The problem: Too often, companies design their workplaces on the drawing board, instead of first analysing and challenging the teams and their actual workflows. The more effort architects and future occupants put into understanding the needs and the status quo, the greater the chance the final workplace design will suit their needs.
The soulution: Even the best analysis of a company’s as-is processes cannot rule out the possibility that things will change over time or that some aspect of the design will not work. Design by definition is a process-oriented endeavour. Good design should be able to withstand change. Flexible layouts and office furnishings, which allow for things to be rearranged and updated, are a good place to start. The most decisive factor here is the staff itself. Involving them early in the process will help to develop a sustainable vision and design.
Embracing the opportunities provided by the pandemic: Rethinking conventions
When companies talk about digitalisation in the enterprise, they need to go beyond just video conferencing. The search for digital tools that will support day-to-day operations and promote creativity and communication is never-ending. One example is a tool such as MIRO, which RIO rolled out before lockdown and works wonders for workshops.
RIO used to spend a lot on post-its before the lockdown, but then all of the meetings went online. “We used an insane number of post-its – the walls were plastered with them, because they were useful in visualising one process or another – but that was no longer possible during lockdown,” Christian Zingg says.
Companies should not be afraid to question the status quo, to rethink certain conventions and maybe even get rid of some old habits. Sven Bietau continues: “The same is true for traditional meetings. After some initial teething problems in the way project teams were communicating, the fact that we were forced to hold meetings online during the pandemic led to some very positive results. We have made our meetings shorter and more efficient. Everyone has access to documentation of the meeting results to work on further or share with others. No one has to travel to or from the office, which saves time for the staff and reduces our environmental impact.” Of course, social interaction and informal exchanges around the coffee machine suffer as a result. After the pandemic, we expect a lot of the new meeting culture to remain virtual, even though a significant share of meetings will likely return to the physical office.
The problem: The pandemic has made our workflows and rituals either impossible or only possible to a limited degree – we need to come up with new solutions.
The soulution: New tools may offer an imperfect digital alternative, but leaving your comfort zone and embracing change has its advantages. Sven Bietau: “It is important to give employees the freedom to experiment with new tools and techniques designed to improve the way we work: Learn from the best!” Managers need to be open to change and encourage their staff to adopt the same mindset. There is clearly a lot of consulting work to be done in this area, and companies may find the support of external experts to be useful and effective.